- Nice screen
- Honeycomb OS
- 32GB internal memory
- Uninspiring design
- Review Price: £436.73
- 10.1in PVA screen
- Android 3.0 Honeycomb OS
- 32GB internal memory
- Capacitive touchscreen
- 5-megapixel main camera with LED flash
The Acer Iconia A500 is a 10.1in Android tablet. In this most basic sense, it’s very similar to the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Asus Eee Pad Transformer. This barrage of tablets welcomes the new Android Honeycomb 3.0 operating system to the market. It’s the first version of the Google OS to be made specifically for tablets.
In entering the stage alongside other big-name devices, the Acer Iconia A500 risks being seen as an uninspiring also-ran. Design-wise, it doesn’t do much to differentiate itself either. Its back is made of brushed metal and it’s much slimmer than its Windows 7 sibling, the Iconia W500, but it’s thicker and heavier than some alternatives. It weighs 756g and is 13.3mm thick. That’s significantly weightier than the 680g Eee Pad Transformer and chunkier all-round than the iPad 2, which is just 8.8mm thick and 601g.
Consequently, the Iconia A500 isn’t very comfortable to hold one-handed for extended periods. However, much as the iPad 2 left many a reviewer bleating about how much easier the device is to hold one-handed than its predececssor, a 10in tablet is never going to be as comfy to hold this way as an Amazon Kindle or a 7in tablet like the HTC Flyer and Archos 70. It’s a compromise of the form factor, not just this specific design.
However, the Iconia A500 isn’t as snazzy-looking as some Honeycomb tablets. Metal body bits aside, the design isn’t that impressive. The handful of plastic cutaways in the body, for the left and right edges, the microSD slot and the dock port eat away at the tablet’s sense of style, as does the seam that joins the back and front body plates. The issue is that the Iconia’s look suggests that these elements are unfortunate necessities, by trying to make the plastic bits look as much like the brushed metal as possible. A fashion designer doesn’t apologise for his clothes – this is more Primarni than Armani.
With more metal on show the A500 should seem higher-end than the Eee Pad Transformer, but it doesn’t. Its look is less bold than this and the iPad 2, and as such also less desirable. It’s nice, in a rather pedestrian way. Much like the word “nice” itself.
Get past the Iconia A500’s surface-level disappointments and the tablet’s body leaves a much better impression. Connectivity is comprehensive, without leaving any one side too cluttered – as we saw in the budget Archos 101.
The left edge houses the power button, charge socket, headphone jack and microHDMI. The right edge is your USB station, with a microUSB and full-size USB port. This isn’t needless USB doubling either, as the larger USB lets you plug in a standard keyboard to type away on. Up top are volume controls, an orientation lock switch and a plastic flap that hides the microSD slot. This flap is the very worst example of the A500’s slightly clumsy design, as it’s rather large – giving room for a 3G SIM slot that doesn’t feature in this model.
Finally, there’s a dock connector on the bottom edge. The basic package doesn’t come with any accessories that make use of this, but there’s a multimedia dock available. A keyboard dock is rumoured to be in the works too.
Other than the four plastic cutaways for all these sockets and ports, the back’s brushed metal is also interrupted by the large lens housing serving the 5-megapixel camera and the stereo speaker outlets. The back camera is equipped with an LED flash, and there’s a secondary 2-megapixel model around the front for video chat and the obligatory throwaway Photobooth-style photo apps.
A dual-core 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 and 512MB RAM powers the Iconia A500 show and there’s 32GB of on-board flash memory as standard. You can also add to this using microSD cards. We’ve already mentioned that 3G doesn’t feature in this model, but Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth 2.1 are all here. Acer has also jammed-in Dolby Mobile, which lets you apply rudimentary EQ to the tablet’s sound output, as well as specific settings for video and music.
However, it’s not a feature that should sway you towards a purchase, even though it doesn’t feature in most rivals. Dolby Mobile offers decent results, but a tablet isn’t much cop as a portable MP3 player and if you’re using the A500 as a home music or movie solution, a receiver or hi-fi will likely offer their own EQ options. And if you’re using a TV’s own speakers, connecting directly from the microHDMI socket, no amount of equalisation is going to win you stellar sound quality.
The full-size USB slot is a serious convenience bonus for media fans though. Not only does it let you easily connect keyboards, you can also plug in USB flash memory drives and external hard drives. This boosts flexibility, although its video potential – which should be good given the high-quality screen and powerful CPU – is limited by other factors we’ll cover later.
The Acer Iconia A500 runs Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first tablet-focused Google OS. It’s a blown-up version of the smartphone Android OS, but offers many optimisations and interface tweaks that make it much better-suited for the big (well, big-ish) screen.
It packs-in much more information onto each screen, and increases the power of home screens, which are the staple of the Android OS. In practice, Honeycomb feels like a half-way house between the smartphone Android and a full computer operating system. At the bottom of the screen is an interface bar with basic nav buttons, a clock and a notifications bar that also houses a clock and battery indicator. The titles of any emails received pop up right there on the home screen, making this outer layer of Honeycomb more effective has an information hub than its predecessors.
You’re free to customise the rest of each of the five home screens as you like, with wallpapers, shortcuts and widgets. Email widgets, clocks, calendar reminders and web shortcut panels are included as standard, and apps from the Android Market will add additional ones. Twitter comes with a selection of home screen widgets, for example. However, Honeycomb is still a sapling and while the A500 is backwards-compatible with older Android 2.x apps, there are precious few dedicated tablet apps out there that make full use of the pixels and screen inches of a full-size tablet like this.
The Android Market doesn’t currently tell you whether an app’s been lovingly crafted with tablets in mind either, so finding the best apps involves a lot of experimentation. Or alternatively, you could read our top apps articles.
With a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor at the helm, the Acer Iconia A500 is as powerful as the latest crop of tablets, but few current Android apps make use of this reserve. In order to point you in the right direction, the TegraZone Games portal comes pre-installed on the tablet. It’s an NVIDIA games store featuring the titles optimised for the Tegra 2 processor. At present, there are just 13 titles available though and, predictably, the majority have already been released for iPad or iPhone. The Tegra 2 chip is a very capable gaming processor, but if you expect its presence to mean the Acer Iconia A500 and its ilk will seriously challenge the iPad’s gaming power (in terms of the number of titles available) you’re mistaken.
That said, while these early high-end games are fairly impressive the best is yet to come. Epic’s Unreal engine is being used to make games for Tegra 2 laptops right now, and they’ll boast gorgeous 3D visuals. The first, Dungeon Defenders: First Wave, is already available, and gives a hint as to what’s in store.
The processor makes light work of day-to-day navigation. It’s slick and largely lag-free. Honeycomb’s nooks and crannies are home to various minor software bugs and glitches, but these are only apparent when the Iconia A500 is compared to the experience offered by an iPad 2, not an Android 2.x smartphone. Android 3.0 may be a fresh start of sorts, but it didn’t enter the market at square one. Google has learnt a lot in its travels with Android, and that knowledge is in evidence here.
The Acer Iconia A500 features a 10.1in screen with a capacitive touch layer – just like the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. This size has become the standard for Android Honeycomb tablets, and it’s something that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Different models employ different screen technologies though. Our favourite is IPS (in-plane switching), used in the iPad 2 and Eee Pad Transformer. This offers the best viewing angles money can buy and excellent overall image quality. The Acer Iconia A500 uses a PVA LCD (patterned vertical alignment) panel instead, but the difference in quality isn’t huge. Resolution is the same as most other 10in Android tablet at 1280×800 pixels.
It’s is bright, clear and vivid – the one giveaway sign that this isn’t quite as impressive as the iPad 2’s screen is that it suffers from minor colour shift when viewed from an extreme angle. This effect alters colour tone and tends to make the picture appear washed-out. In real-life usage though, you’ll barely notice this unless you’re actively looking for it, in part because the ultra-glossy screen leaves some reflections on-screen almost all the time but mostly because you simply won’t usually view the screen from such an angle.
This glossy finish means the Acer Iconia A500 isn’t pleasant to use outside, as unless you’re very careful about how you angle the screen you’ll see more of the world around you than what is on-screen. The same is true of all of the A500’s main rivals though. If you want a device to read a book outside in the garden, buy a Kindle. Or a Sony Reader.
What’s more disappointing than the frankly minor lack of IPA’s best bits is the poor video codec support. Only the very basics are here – H.264 and MP4. DivX, Xvid and MKV are all strictly out of bounds. If you have an existing video library downloaded from the net, you’ll probably have to convert most of it.
Alternatively, third-party media player apps from the Android Market such as yxplayer, RockPlayer arcMedia will play additional codecs, but they’re poor mitigation. They all use software decoding of media files, rather than employing the tablet’s graphics hardware, and consequently performance with high bit-rate and HD-resolution movies is poor even with a dual-core processor powering things along.
At least capturing HD video is easy thanks to its 5-megapixel (720p) camera. Vids are encoded as 3gp files and the quality is decent. Photo performance is worse though, with plenty of chromatic aberration on show and pretty mediocre detail harvested. The glossy screen and sheer size of the A500 make the tablet downright embarrassing to use as a camera anyway. Both video and still shots can use a handful of filters including Mono, Sepia and Posterize.
The Acer Iconia A500 feels similar to every other Android Honeycomb tablet once you get past its design. However, we’re not crazy about some of the bits that Acer is responsible for. The look lacks confidence and the bold strokes of a real designer, it’s also missing any cool extras like the keyboard dock of the Eee Pad Transformer and the screen falls short of IPS alternatives. What’s more, the overall Android tablet experience still doesn’t match that of the iPad when it comes to apps. We’d be happy to use this device as our everyday tablet companion, but would we splash out £450 on it? Probably not, given the other options out there.
Here the Cloudy setting was used, designed to compensate for less-than-sunny days. As you can see, the effect isn’t particularly natural-looking.
The camera has autofocus, but detail of close-up subjects isn’t noteworthy.
Score in detail